By Mary-Justine Lanyon
“Once you’re one of my kids, you’re always one of my kids.”
That’s what Bruce Hamilton – the new principal at Valley of Enchantment Elementary School – has told his students in his 23 years as an educator.
On Aug. 24, he assumed the helm of VOE, bringing with him years of experience teaching students in grades three through eight.
Hamilton had not intended to be a teacher, although he married one. He was working in the hotel industry when his wife, Rubie, asked him where he lived because he was doing so much traveling for his job. He resigned.
“I was sitting at home when I got a call from my wife’s principal. I thought I was going to lunch,” Hamilton said. Instead, the principal walked him to a special day class for grades four, five and six.
“I never left,” he said. “And I didn’t get lunch.” Because Hamilton had already taken the test that qualified him to be a substitute teacher, he began his education career in the Alvord Unified District.
For the first 15 years, he taught grades three through six, including special education and gifted classes. He then spent five years teaching grades six through eight, focusing on a math intervention program, language arts and history.
Along the way, Hamilton earned a master’s degree in educational administration and a certification in intervention management.
Three years ago, he moved out of the classroom and into administration, first as an academic intervention specialist in the Sacramento area and then as assistant principal in a kindergarten through sixth-grade school in Barstow for the past two years.
As for why he made the move out of the classroom, Hamilton said he realized one day that he was benefitting the 30 or so students in his class but not the others in the school. “I thought I could be a positive influence on more people,” he said.
As an academic intervention specialist, he put a support system in place at 52 schools, offering social, emotional and academic support to the students.
The Hamiltons’ plan was to move to the Sacramento area but his parents’ health brought him back to Southern California. He and Rubie had gotten tired, he said, of “the concrete jungle” where they live in Riverside. They considered moving to the desert but rejected that idea.
The principal position at VOE attracted him because of his love of being outdoors. He spends a great deal of time hiking, biking and fishing – something he has done on his birthday every year since he turned 3. “I just love it,” Hamilton said.
And what he has already discovered is that the mountain is a different environment.
“There’s something different about the interactions, how people treat each other, talk with each other,” Hamilton said.
The principal has met almost all of the VOE staff. He held an in-person staff meeting in the cafeteria, with everyone physically distanced. What he asked the staff was, how can I support you in the future?
It is an odd time to begin a new position but, Hamilton said, he and everyone at the school are doing the best they can. “That’s the motto of every school district this year,” he said.
He has been popping into virtual classes, either in the classrooms if the teachers are teaching from there or online if they are teaching from home.
When asked about the school’s garden and chickens, Hamilton said the chickens are residing at home with teacher Mark Warhol. “They’ll come back when the kids come back.
“A couple of the staff members came to me and asked if they could spend time in the garden,” he said. He will be building a compost bin soon – putting to good use his carpentry skills.
“One of the funniest parts of the interview process,” Hamilton noted, “was everyone kept talking about the chickens.” Since his in-laws keep chickens, geese and ducks, he is very familiar with the birds.
“One thing that made this position so appealing,” Hamilton added, “is that it’s an actual community. People are having conversations, working together. That’s missing in a lot of places.”
To further those conversations in a time of limited gatherings, Hamilton is hosting Zoom meetings with the parents every other week so they can just say hello or bring their questions to him. He just had a conversation that was eye-opening.
“A couple who logged on had to keep popping in and out so they could help their third-grader with their work. I know it’s an issue, that it’s a lot of work for the parents.”
Another parent raised the issue of having a kindergartner in one room and a second-grader in another, both doing their classes. The parent told Hamilton they felt like a tennis ball, bouncing between the two rooms. “I can share that with the staff,” he said.
Speaking of the staff, Hamilton said he asks them how they find themselves, get back to themselves. “I tell people to go yell at a tree – it doesn’t care. Don’t do that to other people. I’m trying to stress that with parents. When you reach the limit of your stress level, go for a walk, do whatever it is that helps you deal.
“I’m actively encouraging teachers to just get out. Everyone I know in education has had those lessons that start and five minutes later they are not working. That’s the time for a sudden art project or the time to go outside for some PE.
“We need to make sure we take that out into the virtual world,” Hamilton said. “If you’re doing a lesson and the cherubs are staring at you, don’t keep going. Punt, come up with something or we’ll all reach a frustration level that doesn’t work.”
Hamilton acknowledges that there will be some learning loss due to distance learning. But, he said, “we can develop a plan and get to that. We will still hit the benchmarks but do not try to force a lesson that’s going sideways.”
He has given the same advice to parents: When your 7-year-old has had enough of Zoom, be done for the day.
As for himself, Hamilton said he is having an “absolute ball. I get up in the morning and look forward to going to work.”
He added that his goal is “to take a great school and make it better. The goal is to be better today than we were yesterday. Together there is nothing we can’t achieve.”
He and Rubie plan to start looking for a mountain home – which he may just build himself – next year.